Dispatches from the east coast – Mammoth Cave National Park (long post)

As I post this I’ve been back in California for more than a week already. I started writing it in Kentucky and worked on it during my flight back to L.A., but couldn’t finish to post. Once back in L.A. life got in the way. So it’s really a dispatch about Kentucky from California 😄.

The history of national parks in the US and elsewhere has been to interpret ideas, events, buildings, artifacts, etc. from a Eurocentric perspective. This has long been a flaw of the National Park Service, though in the last two decades significant efforts have been made to change it. These efforts include changes to interpretation to show a more well-rounded history and protecting spaces, buildings and intangibles that are of importance to Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans, Latino Americans, and more. These changes are evident in the information available on the NPS’ extensive website and at sites around the country. Much work remains to be done in this regard, but I appreciate the efforts so far. The last two sites I visited on my Kentucky roadtrip are tremendously important to understanding and respecting the contributions made by African Americans to the country’s past and present.

My roadtrip continued on July 15th with Mammoth Cave National Park as the focus. This was the item on my bucket list that prompted the trip. While on my bucket list because it is a national park, it was at the top of the list because of the significant role played by enslaved Africans, previously enslaved Africans, and their descendants in the exploration of the cave system, discovery of new sections, and guiding cave tours.  The cave had some 533,206 recreational visitors and 142,923 non-recreational visitors in 2018, a significant decrease from its peak visitation of 2,396,234 and 173,088 in 1993 (NPS, 2019).

African American History at Mammoth Cave

Prior to becoming a national park, Mammoth Cave was a series of privately held parcels and its history as we know it today would be very different without Stephen Bishop, Materson (also spelled Mattison and known as Mat) Bransford, Nick Bransford, Ed Bishop, Will Garvin, Matt Bransford and more – enslaved and free Black guides and explorers who charted largely unknown paths in and outside of the Cave. Can you imagine what it would’ve been like to explore the cave system without the benefit of the electrical system in place today? I talk a bit more about this towards the end of the post when I discuss the Star Chamber tour.

Stephen Bishop was the first to cross the Bottomless Pit (105 ft. deep) and is known for notable discoveries like Fatman’s Misery, Tall Man’s Misery, Great Relief Hall and Mammoth Dome. He also made a map of the cave from memory which was published in the 1840s and continued to be used until the 1880s (Lanzendorfer, 2019; Medley Lyons, 2006; NPS, n.d.). Bishop started guiding around 1838 while enslaved, gained his freedom in 1856, and died one year later at the young age of 37. Such was his reputation as a guide that it is said that for years after his death, the cave’s owner continued to have a guide called ‘Stephen Bishop’ to keep attracting visitors to the cave (anon). His remains are now interred at the Old Guide’s Cemetery at Mammoth Cave National Park (NPS, n.d.).  

Ed Bishop (possibly Stephen’s grandnephew) started guiding at the cave in 1886. He’s also credited (with cartographer Max Kaemper) with major discoveries like Bishop’s Pit and Violet City.

Many of the African Americans associated with the cave after 1812 were guides, cooks, maids, laundresses, and porters. Matt Bransford and his wife Zemmie, however, were also hotelkeepers, operating the Bransford Resort for Black visitors out of their home. Bransford also traveled to other cities to promote Mammoth Cave to the African American community and led tours of the cave for them (NPS, n.d.).

In the 1930s African Americans (including some Mammoth Cave guides) were members of the Civilian Conservation Corps who helped to build better trails in the cave, along with housing, communication systems, water systems, etc. (NPS, 2018). For more see https://www.nps.gov/maca/learn/historyculture/black-history.htm.

Though none of the Black guides were hired when Mammoth Cave became a national park (despite 101 continuous years of Bransfords being guides), one descendant of the early guides plays a role at Mammoth Cave to today (Christiansen, 2014; Medley Lyons, 2006). Park Ranger Jerry Bransford is a descendant of Materson Bransford and a 5th generation guide at the Cave. He started his NPS career as a seasonal guide in 2004 (Medley Lyons, 2006). I first heard of Ranger Bransford from one of the attendants in the Visitor Center bookshop. As it turned out I had seen Ranger Branford while waiting for one of my tours and heard him exchanging greetings with a fellow veteran.

Before becoming a tourist attraction, Mammoth Cave was mined for saltpetre (potassium nitrate), a main ingredient in gunpowder and enslaved Africans were the central to its mining – from the construction of the equipment to leach nitre from the soil, to the actual mining and processing, then finally to the packaging of the saltpetre for shipping to the DuPont Company in Delaware. The US sustained its fight against the British in the War of 1812 because thanks to Mammoth Cave and other mines, it was able to increase its production of gunpowder when the British blocked access to foreign sources (NPS, 2018).

So that’s some of the history of African Americans at Mammoth Cave. Now here is the underground part of my experience.


There was no drama to start the day because we stayed at the Lodge at Mammoth Cave which allowed me to sleep until around 8 am. Of course I appreciated that very, very much.

Mammoth Cave is thought to be one of the most extensive, known, cave systems and with over 400 miles already explored and mapped, is the longest in the world. Estimates are that around 600 miles of the Cave remain unexplored. Mammoth Cave takes its name from its ‘mammoth’ size, not from the woolly mammoths and in fact no historic or prehistoric mammal remnants have been discovered in the cave. The Cave is of cultural and natural significance nationally and globally. In addition to being declared a US national park in 1941 (first authorized in 1926), it was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981 and designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1990 (NPS, n.d.).

There’s a lot to do at the Cave, both above ground (camping, hiking, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, ranger programmes, exhibits in Visitor Center) and below ground (wild and managed caving). One day was just not enough and we restricted our activities to cave tours only. If I visit again I’ll stay for a few days to do some hiking.

Given its sheer size and the number of miles available to be viewed, the National Park Service offers 14 different tours (may be fewer depending on time of year) with most of these available several times throughout the day. I reviewed the options for quite a while (weeks in advance) before selecting tours (only a few days before the visit). Then once we chose, changes had to be made because tours were full (this is what happens when you try to book close to the tour date). On the day we visited, most of the tours were booked solid. We did three tours, starting at 10 am and finishing around 8:45 pm. It was a long day, but totally worth it. It was also an awesome way for me to complete hike #40 of my 52 hike challenge.

There’s a distinct temperature change which is felt at the mouth of the cave and it becomes starker as you descend: 80-90 degrees above ground, around 70 degrees at the entrance and as low as 54 degrees at the lowest point in the cave. Because of the minimal lighting and the inability to take photos with the flash, my photos do not do the cave justice. You’ll have to go see it yourself to get the full effect and I would happily go with you 😊.

Domes and Dripstones (D&D)

We started with the D&D tour and perhaps that was a good strategy because it was the least exciting of the three. The section of the cave used for this tour is accessed through one of the newer entrances and was also used for tours when it was privately owned. When NPS acquired this part of the cave system it already had electricity and the main walkways had been somewhat improved. Many parts of the Cave were originally under privately owned land. There are still entrances to the cave on private property with their own entrances, which could be, but are seldom used.

D&D is billed as “a wonderful complement to the Historic Tour, this trip includes a dramatic series of domes and pits, typical large trunk passageways, and a short journey through dripstone formations.” The most dramatic points were the initial descent (the skill of their architect and builders is admirable) and the Frozen Niagara element. Even though there were sturdy metal steps to climb down into the cave, I could easily imagine how challenging the descent originally was: the shaft surrounding the stairs was narrow, with very low ceilings at points, and one of the only areas on this tour where water dripped consistently. Although the cave is primarily limestone, its external layers are mainly sandstone and shale which prevent a lot of water from seeping into the cave from the surface. This means that most of the cave is dry unless it’s an area where a river or a stream runs through.

Descending the stairs for the D&D tour.

Once we were in the main hall of the cave, the ceilings rose dramatically and were 50 ft from the ground to the highest point.

Grand Central Station. One of the many chambers large enough to offer seating for more than 100 people.

The Frozen Niagara section was the most interesting part of the tour with flowstones, stalactites, and stalagmites in varying shapes and sizes. The entire tour covered less than 1 mile underground.


The historic tour was much better. It started at the ‘historic’ entrance – the one which was first used by white settlers when they stumbled upon the cave in 1798, thousands of years after Woodland Indians had last used it (NPS, n.d.). This tour includes landmarks traditionally visited in the 1800s through to the early 1900s, covering the areas that were known prior to the discoveries of Stephen Bishop and his contemporaries. While the Frozen Niagara component seen on the D&D tour is beautiful, I’ve seen other caves that are more so. For me what set Mammoth Cave apart is its sheer size and soaring ceilings which are more evident on the historic tour.  I was awed by what exists naturally, with minimal human intervention.

The historic tour also traversed various areas first explored by Stephen Bishop: the Bottomless Pit, Fatman’s Misery, Tall Man’s Misery, Great Relief Hall (around 280 ft. below the surface) and Mammoth Dome.

Some of the equipment, built by the enslaved to extract saltpetre, is still in place close to the historic entrance of the cave.

The ranger leading the tour explained how tours were conducted in the early 1800s versus how they are today: our historic tour was about 2 hrs long; a short tour in the early days was 6 hours and a long tour 14! Men dressed in suits, women in dresses with hoop skirts and heels (the horror). There was no electricity so they used lanterns for light. The paths were not paved or smoothed as they are now. Folks were climbing over rocks in that garb! I’m not sure how a woman would’ve made it through the very narrow section known as Fatman’s Misery in a hoop skirt.

Given the length and strenuousness of the tours in the early days, guides often had to entertain visitors in addition to providing them with factual information. This entertainment was also a way for them to earn tips to supplement their wages and included stories about various formations, gypsum deposits, helping them to ‘smoke’ their names on the cave ceiling with candles, and more.

Our experience on the historic tour provides an excellent example of a basic intangible component of experiences – other guests can significantly impact your experience. This is one of the fundamental concepts we teach students. We felt this in a major way during the first part of the historic tour because of three children whose guardians allowed them to run through the cave even though we had explicitly been told not to do so. Several times they jostled my friend who was walking in front of them and generally detracted from our experience.   

We had to climb many stairs towards the end of the tour. This set was 155.
Exiting the cave through the historic entrance.

Star Chamber

This was by far the best of the three tours. Even though we went through some of the same areas as the historic tour, it was a lot more exciting because it was done with lantern light instead of the electric lighting system. The ranger who led the tour was also very good – informative and humorous. This tour started at 6:30 pm so there was also the added ‘rush’ of touring the cave with a smaller group after it had closed for the day.  It was also a better experience because the maximum for this tour was 40 participants versus 110 on the historic tour and D&D. (Note it’s almost impossible to get photos by lantern light, especially when there aren’t that many lanterns).

We’re about to enter the cave with our trusty lantern. Bright outside but very dark inside.

The tour was done by lantern to mimic (minimally) the experience of early explorers and visitors. About half of our group carried lanterns.

At one point they were all extinguished and it was impossible to see anything in the cave, not even my own hand waving in front of my face. Imagine how brave those early explorers must have been to go in to the cave with lanterns only, not knowing what lay beyond and having no means of communicating with anyone if they ran out of fuel, got hurt or got stuck somewhere. Stephen Bishop first crossed the Bottomless Pit by stretching a ladder across the chasm and crawling over with a lantern held between his teeth!

Before all lanterns were extinguished.

One of the former owners of the cave was a doctor who thought that the climate of the cave would cure ‘pulmonary consumption’ (tuberculosis) and set up a hospital in the cave in 1842/43 which at one point held 15 or 16 patients. These buildings were also constructed by the enslaved. Tours were not diverted from the area and visitors would encounter these patients unexpectedly. The doctor’s experiment failed; 5 patients died in the cave and the others returned to the surface. The doctor himself died from tuberculosis some years later (NPS, 2018). The tuberculosis hospital ruins are featured on the Star Chamber tour.

In the Star Chamber, the gypsum coating the ceiling is blackened from soot/smoke from torches, lanterns and fires, but there are spots of white that from the right perspective gives the appearance of stars. These stars were either created by guides and visitors bouncing rocks off the ceiling and chipping the soot to expose the gypsum or new crystals pushing through the soot covered layer. Perhaps they were created through a combination of the two. On the ceiling of Star Chamber one can also see the moon and the milky way.

Two final remarkable features of Mammoth Cave: exploration is ongoing and new sections are being discovered and mapped; tours have been offered continuously from before the Civil War until now (NPS, 2018).

After touring the Cave, it was time to hit the road again for another 2 hour drive to Danville, where we would spend the night before visiting Camp Nelson National Monument the next day. I prefer to sleep in my destination rather than waking up extra early to get there. It was another interesting drive, with me at the wheel this time, while my friend slept since it was her bedtime (lol, yes it really was at 9 or 10 pm). Driving in rural Kentucky at night, with limited street lights, mist/fog, and highway detours was at times unsettling, but we made it with no mishaps.

2 thoughts on “Dispatches from the east coast – Mammoth Cave National Park (long post)

  1. Wow! Lots of great research, Mechelle! Great job!
    And by the way, It was closer to 10, it was a long day, my stomach was full and it was dark! 😴 😴Lol!


  2. Wow. I learnt a great deal of information just by reading your adventures. This blog has peaked my interest in caves, hiking and historical sites. I too wish to visit these places.
    Continue to share your awesome experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

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